How to solve murders in the Bay Area

November 13, 2008 7:23:17 PM PST
On average, cities solve 61 percent of their homicides. In the Bay Area, San Jose has one of the highest success rates in the country.

The morning of May 4, 2006, three men chased Terrell Rollins and gunned him down in the Bayview District of San Francisco. He was killed after testifying in a murder case. After Rollins' death, a judge tossed out the case.

Three years later, there are still no arrests in Rollins' highly publicized murder. In fact, most of San Francisco's homicides remain unsolved.

So far, police have only cleared 31 percent of the 93 murders this year. Police say they know who the killers are, and why they cannot make arrests.

"It would have to be because of the non-involvement by the community," Lt. Mike Stasko said. "A lot of the homicides here in San Francisco are done in front of witnesses and witnesses have a tendency of not wanting to talk to the police department."

It is another story in San Jose; there, most murders are solved. In fact, the city has averaged an 86 percent homicide clearance rate, one of the highest rates in the country - and they have maintained that average every year for the past decade.

Help from the community is the biggest reason San Jose police are able to make arrests, Lt. Junior Gamez said. Gamez heads San Jose's homicide unit.

"When we knock on the door at a homicide and we ask people, 'did you see anything,' they contact us and they tell us, 'yes, this is what happened,'" Gamez said.

The department has a long history of aggressive community policing.

"It's been years of networking and working with different ethnic groups and racial groups here in San Jose," Gamez said. He believes he clears homicides because he has many resources; there are 12 homicide detectives and a nine person staff to assist them on cases.

"They are general investigators, so not only will they go out on a homicide, they will go out on a rape, they will go out on a violent assault," Gamez said.

Unlike many other police departments, San Jose's crime scene investigators are detailed directly from the homicide unit so they can be assigned quickly and efficiently.

Gamez also credits San Jose's mandatory rotation policy, in which homicide detectives return to patrol duty to broaden their skills and develop relations with the public.

"We have literally hundreds of officers, sergeants and commanders that are in patrol that have had some sort of investigative training," Gamez said.

Still, community support is the key.

"We've just done a great job of building and fostering relations with our community," Gamez said.

Stasko points out that San Jose has fewer murders, 28 this year, compared to 93 in San Francisco. Also, San Francisco has 18 homicide detectives, only six more than San Jose to handle a much higher murder rate.

But like his San Jose counterpart, Stasko agrees community support is crucial.

"We got sports programs, we have afterschool programs, we got programs that take kids out fishing, we've got a lot of outreach programs that we started," Stasko said.

But he still has trouble getting help from citizens.

There is a reason police in San Francisco have it harder than in San Jose when reaching out to the public, according to former police chief Tony Ribera.

"We are an urban center here in San Francisco," Ribera said. "They don't have anything like our public housing projects; so we have unique problems here in San Francisco that none of the surrounding communities have."

Ribera now heads the Institute of Criminal Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Many of San Francisco's murders occur in districts where there is public housing.

"The fear factor is very real especially in public housing, and that's where you have to be very aggressive in your community policing program," Ribera said.

A negative view of police cooperation also contributes to the problem.

"There's a code that exists out there that I actually call a commandment, 'thou shalt not snitch,'" Marshall said.

Dr. Joe Marshall is the co-founder of Omega Boys' Club and has spent a lifetime working with young African-Americans. Marshall is also a San Francisco Police Commissioner.

Not only is there a fear of retaliation for snitching, Marshall said, many African-Americans also have a basic mistrust of police.

"They're walking down the street, they're not doing anything and suddenly an officer will come up and grab them and make them hit the ground and not necessarily explain the reason," Marshall said. "You hear things like that all the time."

San Francisco's murder rate may reach three digits before the year ends. Stasko has been promised more resources, but without the community's support, he fears the homicide solve rate may never improve.

"We got the community, the business association, the politicians, the cops, the moms the dads, the families, [but] everybody has got to be part of the solution," Stakso said.


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